November 2, 2010


I've had a fairly long history being taught, and have had many opportunities to teach as well. There is some disagreement regarding how teaching is most effective, and I often wonder about God's method according to the LDS church. Contrast the following two examples:
  • In a class on American history, we never knew what to expect on the tests. We took copious notes during lectures, read and re-read the textbooks, and prayed in preparation. I specifically remember leaving the testing center after the first test completely confused. I had no recollection of hearing some of the terms used on the test, some of the answer options given were ambiguous or equally as valid as another, etc. After receiving our grades for the written sections, several of the students were upset that they were docked points for not answering unasked questions. What confused me most about the grading system in this class was that the goal did not appear to be simply challenging us, but it seemed as if all was being done to keep us from succeeding.
I wonder what would have been so detrimental to our learning if we had been tested on what we had been taught.
  • About a year before that, I took an introductory statistics class. The professor's philosophy of teaching was quite different from that of the American History class's. He warned us that the assignments would be very strict, and that he did not allow even the slightest mistake. He explained that he would mark off points for bad handwriting, misplaced commas, extra decimal points, failure to use certain words, and so on. But he also told us that, although the standards were very strict, about 80% of his students ended up with A's. He said this was because he would make sure that we understood the material. As long as we came to class, paid attention, and asked questions about anything and everything we did not fully understand, he would use his vast experience and patience to be certain that the concepts he taught us were clear. The class was very challenging, but I came out with an A, and a very clear knowledge of basic statistical principles.
Let's examine the two different approaches; both classes required much, were challenging, and I learned a great deal from them. Both were taught by experts in their respective fields. However, the first required much but gave very little to facilitate success, whereas the second required much and made everything available to us that could help us reach its high demands.

The first class considered 90% of the class receiving A's as evidence that it was not challenging enough, while the second class viewed 90% A's as evidence that the students were learning the material.

According to LDS doctrine, God wants us all to pass this "test" of earthly life (source). It is His deepest desire that we all are worthy to return to Him (Moses 1:39). I understand that lowering the standards would be a poor method to achieve this goal. To simply decide that attendance alone would suffice for an A grade would demean the entire point of the class. Likewise, in the LDS world, to simply give everyone salvation regardless of behavior or character would make the Celestial Kingdom little different from earthly life.

If demands must remain high, wouldn't it fit the character of the Master Teacher to respond to our inquiries with patience and thorough explanation, building upon what we already know? Why, then, does He apparently make so little effort to help us understand the most complicated teachings of polygamy, denial of priesthood to persons of African descent, along with the legitimacy of the Book of Mormon in the face of DNA and archaeological evidence against it, etc.? The LDS god requires that we accept polygamy, and accept that the priesthood denial was not evidence against the Church's divinity. Why, then, does the LDS god not also deliver some degree of explanation for the same? If they are, in fact, eternal principles, are we not to understand them? If these confusing and troublesome teachings do not require explanations for us to accept them, why did that same god plague us with the power to think?

Some would say, "He gave us the Holy Spirit. That's all we need." For example, most members who wonder why polygamy was justified conclude through the Holy Ghost that some reasonable explanation exists (although we do not have it), and insist that they require nothing more.

This is similar to asking the professor about how World War I developed, and being met with, "The answer to that on the test will be C." You may say, "That's good, but that seems relevant to the rest of what followed. Will you help me understand how it fits?" The professor says, "Well, you don't need to understand it, you just need to remember that the answer is C."

Why would the master teacher encourage confusion when the explanation is available? Why put off our learning? Why delay our growth?